Life is so unpredictable. At some levels, it’s like walking on an ice cake being joyful; whereas in other moments, it brings out the turmoil evoking many responses: fear followed by sadness, anger, grief, or a feeling hoping it won’t happen to me. In this article, we are going to talk about fear.
What is fear?
Fear can be explained as an unpleasant psychological feeling that is caused by some real or imagined danger. There could be the fear of facing people, losing a special one, doing badly in exams, losing your job, or the fear of any uncertainty. It results in the uneasiness of the mind, which disturbs our entire biological system.
Of course, it’s important to experience some fear at times, otherwise, life would be mundane and we will not grow beyond certain levels. However, it should not be paralyzing and heightened to the extent that it disturbs your entire system, with the torment leaving you with complexities and emotional baggage way by the end.
It also highlights the necessity to work with our own fears, from the little niggling fears we have, to the biggest challenges we face in life. Where do we find courage? How to find solutions?
It seems there are no sweeping answers that magically calm our fear and anxiety. However, some hints may be close at hand. Intertwined with fear, we discover fearlessness. Fear is something ancient and ingrained. It is placed as a survival mechanism in nature, triggering awareness of a threat and triggering responses such as flight, freeze, or fight.
Fear & Human Brain
In the study of the human brain, the amygdala is a complex structure of cells nestled in the middle of the brain adjacent to the hippocampus (which is associated with memory formation) is shown to perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision making, and emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and aggression). The amygdalae are considered part of the limbic system.
In one study, electrical stimulations of the right amygdala induced negative emotions, especially fear and sadness. In contrast, stimulation of the left amygdala was able to induce either pleasant (happiness) or unpleasant (fear, anxiety, sadness) emotions. Other evidence suggests that the left amygdala plays a role in the brain's reward system. Fear conditioning, Fear conditioning, which occurs when a neutral stimulus acquires aversive properties, occurs within the right hemisphere. When an individual is presented with a conditioned, aversive stimulus, it is processed within the right amygdala, producing an unpleasant or fearful response. This emotional response conditions the individual to avoid fear-inducing stimuli and more importantly, to assess threats in the environment.
The right hemisphere is also linked to declarative memory, which consists of facts and information from previously experienced events and must be consciously recalled. It also plays a significant role in the retention of episodic memory. Episodic memory consists of the autobiographical aspects of memory, permitting the recall of emotional and sensory experiences of an event. This type of memory does not require conscious recall. The right amygdala plays a role in the association of time and places with emotional properties.
LeDoux had pointed out the complexity and the interconnectedness of our experience of fear, which is not just a question of how the brain functions but also is reflected in our psychological experience of fear. The complex nature of fear may be why one-shot solutions are not always effective and why we need broader and more inclusive approaches.
Sometimes there does seem to be a simple solution to our fear. If you are abused by someone, then you might think that if you stop the abuse, you should be able to stop the fear associated with it. But does that really work? Many of us will say “Sort of.” You may not have to fear being actually abused by a particular person again, whereas, it’s likely you will still continue to relive the abuse in your subconscious mind and that you may be very anxious about the possibility of being abused by someone else in the future. You may have a difficult time trusting people at all. Hence, there is a lot more work to be done to conquer the trauma associated with your fear.
Fear & Anxiety
Fear and anxiety are closely interconnected. Anxiety is a very common if not a universal experience. You may get anxious, though it is not necessary that we’re afraid of all of them. You may feel anxious before a job interview; you might not be afraid of going to the interview. We can think of the difference between fear and anxiety as a matter of degree, or as a way to distinguish between a threat and a challenge. Taking an exam may be challenging, but not necessarily threatening.
Anxiety may be anticipatory worrying, but it can also be generalized unease. Most people experience anxiety, which can be low-level, ongoing, periodical, or sometimes debilitating—in which case medical and/or psychological help is called for. With ordinary anxiety, we usually look for the cause of the anxiousness and try to correct it, but again, it’s not so easy. It can become like a game of Whack-a-Mole. You subjugate one cause of anxiety and up pops the next thing. It can feel endless. A common strategy is to treat the symptom, the anxiety itself. People handle anxiety in a lot of ways starting from self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, finding other solutions, or from sex to shopping. There’s nothing wrong with a new dress or a new fling, necessarily, but as habitual responses to anxiety, they can become crippling addictions themselves. And do these solutions really work? If they did, we wouldn’t have to keep drinking or shopping so frantically.
The alternative is to accept the issue and work with the anxiety as it presents itself, without necessarily seeking a cause or expecting an immediate solution. Just embrace it!
WHAT YOU CAN DO?
Take it Easy on Yourself
Although working with fear in one’s meditation is extremely valuable, it’s equally important to develop ways of working with fear and anxiety in everyday life. Here are some suggestions:
Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t blame yourself for your fears or anxiety. These are mere human responses to a human condition. Try to suspend any harsh self-judgments. Don’t expect to conquer fear in one breath, one hour, or one day.
Take time for yourself. Fear thrives when we push too hard. Learn to Pay Gratitude, appreciate yourself in small moments and small acts: take a walk, smell a flower, drink a good cup of coffee, watch an absorbing movie.
Do something differently. Alter a routine. By shifting a habitual pattern, you take yourself off autopilot. It may make you a little more anxious, but it also makes you more mindful and aware. Start with working on small anxieties, and you can learn about the bigger anxiety and fear in your life and how to handle it. The changes could be small and almost silly: brush your hair before you brush your teeth, if you usually do the opposite. Wear something you never would, an outlandish scarf or hat. If you’re compulsively early, leave five minutes later for an appointment. Mix it up. Do something that makes you a little uncomfortable and breaks the regular pattern. If this backfires, remember point one.
Celebrate the victories. They may be small. You’re afraid of cockroaches, but you managed to trap one and put it out of the house. You’re terrified of thunder and lightning but you opened the curtains during a storm. Give yourself a mental pat on the back or a genuine piece of treat.
Pen down your daily fears. Get to know your fears and anxieties. Set aside a few minutes, and in that time, notice all the fearful or anxious thoughts that arise, and what triggers them. If this exercise makes you more and more anxious, don’t do it! But often noting fears and letting them come to the surface helps reduce some of the anxiety. It’s a good beginning.
Practice touch and let go in everyday life. Let the fears arise, but also let them go. After you make the catalog or list, look at each fear as an observer, review each anxious moment, and then let it go on its way.
Be curious about your fear. We give power to our anxieties by trying to hide from them. Ignorance is certainly not bliss. Rather, it stokes the fires of fear. So look into what frightens you. Look at the big face of fear and look into the details. You may discover that fear is like the Wizard of Oz, a showman with little substance and much bravado. Or you may find something more substantial. Then, look more deeply, but with kindness to yourself.
Never forget humor. One of the best antidotes to fear is humor, in the sense of celebrating life, not making fun of yourself or others. In our daily life, we are encountered with a pretty steady stream of humor. It’s hard to be terrified when you have a broad grin on your face.
Accept help. Sometimes all you need is a talk with someone about your fears. Sometimes it’s sharing a good meal and a laugh with a friend. A small note of caution: Accepting help doesn’t necessarily mean taking everybody’s advice. Seek professional help if you need it.
Open the door wide to your fear and anxiety. Touch it. Be curious about it. Then let it go. See the contrast between your anxiety and the space around it.
Helping Others to Open the Door
While working with personal fears and anxiety, each of us has the ability to help others overcome and work with their fears. Even the most fearful person can lend a hand, in the right circumstance. Seize every moment whenever you get a chance and the ability to help.
Even noticing someone else’s anxiety or fear can be helpful to him or her. You can assist by just sharing that space. You might practice meditation together, take a walk, sit in silence. If you’re helping someone else, you’ll be helping yourself as well. The world gets bigger when you notice the other people in it and the issues become smaller.
Sometimes, it seems difficult to extend a finger, let alone a hand, to others, especially when one’s own anxiety or depression is great. But just by lifting our gaze ever so slightly to include another, we can often cheer someone up a little and also cheer up ourselves. Change needn’t begin on a grand scale. Like the Parisian Portes Ouvertes, small gestures can sometimes have profound effects.
The interesting thing, then, is that the other side of fear is fearlessness. The word “anxious” does not only express fear or worry but it also represents eagerness and that is not apprehensive. Similarly, fear contains a great deal of energy. It can be a source of courage. When something makes us afraid, it shocks us, but it also perks us. A spark of courage can find us at the worst of times.
In the darkness, many have remarked, we find the light that shows the path.
Role of Mindfulness & Meditation
Interestingly, vulnerability and gentleness toward ourselves and our feelings can reduce the intensity of fear and anxiety. The practice of mindfulness meditation, as well as other mindfulness and contemplative techniques, makes the ways to embrace our dark sides and help to lay the foundation to deal with these and overcome our issues.
The touch and Let Go approach is very useful to deal with Anxiety and Fear. When a feeling such as fear presents itself during meditation, the touch part is that you acknowledge or welcome the fear. You don’t push it away. You really take a look. You don’t have to dwell on it or build it up. If it’s a strong feeling or emotion, it’ll do that for itself!
How to Recognize Your Fear & Deal with it?
This exercise is about looking at your fears of the day, in the here and now. Set aside a period of time, from 10 minutes up to half an hour. Use half your time to notice your fears. Use the other half to contemplate and release them. It’s good to do this when you aren’t distracted by too many other demands. Taking a walk with your fear is a good option.
Technique 1: Observing and Letting it go
Notice what makes you anxious.
Write down some of the fears and anxieties you felt. If you don’t have paper and pencil, make a mental list. Then spend your remaining time contemplating the things that came up. Bring one of these feelings vividly to mind, accept it, let it be there, and then release your fear. Let it go. You can do this for each individual fear, for a few prominent or recurring fears, or for all of them at once.
Notice how you feel after doing this. Do you feel more in tune with yourself? Less anxious? More anxious? More aware? If this helps, try to do it once a week.
Technique 2: Practising See it, feel it, be it
Try these three ways of working with your fear. They are all ways of opening yourself to the strong emotion, as if it were a friend you’re trying to get to know better. You want to know why the fear is the way it is.
See the fear: This method uses our logical, examining mind to uncover what fear and anxiety are all about.
Ask yourself what you’re afraid of.
Then ask yourself some questions about what you fear: What’s the worst that can happen? Can I do anything to change the situation that frightens me?
Look more closely at what you’re afraid of. See if you can break it down into smaller pieces.
Is this fear tied up with memories or past experiences?
Am I afraid of something happening now, that happened before, or that I think will happen in the future?
Feel the fear: Sit with your fear. How does it feel in your body? Does your breathing change when you’re afraid? Do you feel other bodily changes? Is there an arc to your fear, where it increases, peaks, and then subsides? If you stay with your fear— neither grasping onto it nor trying to get rid of it—do you find other feelings beneath or within the fear? Do you find any sadness there? Is there anger?
Be the fear: This method is deeply intuitive. If you feel able to do so, try to identify with the fear completely. Be the fear. In this case, there’s no difference between the fear and you. Who is afraid? What is there to be afraid of? In the end, it's all you and all about you; and you are not afraid of yourself, so the issue is resolved.
Technique 3: Practice Transforming Fear
There is a lot of research that supports mindfulness meditation as a form of exposure therapy. When we meditate, we rehearse our fears in a way that can “extinguish” them.
In evolutionary terms, fear is adaptive. That intense charge to your nervous system in the face of perceived threats can save your life. But like any adaptive behavior (eating and drinking, for example), it can get out of hand and end up harming you.
Exposure therapy is a popular behavioural regimen designed to help people who have difficulty “extinguishing” conditioned fear, such as post-traumatic stress sufferers. The notion of “extinction” or “extinguishing” comes from the psychology of classical conditioning. Exposure therapy seeks to extinguish a fear response by presenting someone with a stimulus that would normally cause fear but prevent the usual response.
Let’s take an example of fear of public speaking: By rehearsing and training yourself to notice your responses, you could eventually extinguish your acute fear of getting up in front of a group of people.
In a recent paper, “The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation,” in the journal Neuroscience, three leading mindfulness researchers— Yi-Yuan Tang, Britta K. Holzer, and Michael I. Posner—postulated that mindfulness meditation may be acting as a form of exposure therapy. According to the authors, “Research on fear conditioning has helped to identify a network of brain regions that are crucial for the extinction of conditioned fear responses.” And now, there is emerging evidence from MRI studies that mindfulness meditation training alters this same brain network.
In short, the authors suggest that from the safety of our meditation posture, we can expose our mind to fears, and thereby train it to extinguish the fear when the response is maladaptive. The neuroscience research may confirm the long-held belief among meditators that mindfulness practice helps us see that many of the things we’re afraid of are not as scary as we think!
Technique 4: Mindful Writing Practice
Another way of checking in with your fear and also touching into fearlessness is to communicate directly with those feelings, by writing them down! You remember your elders talking about writing diaries to express their untold emotions.
Similarly, when you address the fearful you (person2: the recipient) as the fearless you (person1: the writer) or vice versa; see if your language or your feelings change. You might find this is a way to bring humor into your anxiousness. After you write your own letters, reflect on them. Is there a difference in your language when you identify with being afraid versus being fearless? Notice how you felt when you wrote each letter and how you feel now. Did you discover anything?